The fickleness of the crowd
It appears that the e-petition calling for rioters to be deprived of their state benefits has reached (and vastly exceeded) the 100,000 threshold, and so becomes the first "people's petition" to be considered for parliamentary debate. Against all the odds, those campaigns calling for the restitution of capital punishment and a referendum on the EU have been trounced by the grievance-du-jour - the riots. The wording of the petition:
Convicted London rioters should loose (sic) all benefits.
Responsible department: Department for Work and Pensions
Any persons convicted of criminal acts during the current London riots should have all financial benefits removed. No tax payer should have to contribute to those who have destroyed property, stolen from their community and shown a disregard for the country that provides for them.
It has no chance of becoming law, of course. Good grief, by edict of the European Court of Human Rights, we're about to give prisoners the vote: the possibility then of depriving them of their benefits (and so their council homes) would be a grievous violation of their rights to a family life/home/security, etc., etc. Unless the UK is to derogate from the Convention, Parliament is bound by its provisions and protocols. A debate would therefore be a waste of parliamentary time.
But this petition merely serves to show how time-wasting and futile the initiative is: those proposing the petitions cannot even spell, let alone grasp the importance of submitting a correctly-worded petition to increase its chances of being selected by the Committee.
Consider the EU Referendum petition: 'Britain wants Referendum to leave EU'. What a crass and clumsy petition that is: the wording will probably prove an instant hurdle for the Committee, since 'to leave' prejudges the outcome. But the crowd shows its stupidity even more in the absurd penis-measuring competition between those calling for the reintroduction of capital punishment and those who wish to retain the ban. Why on earth can people not see that this is the same debate? Whichever crosses the 100,000 threshold first, the debate which takes place in Parliament will be identical to that which would have taken place had the other e-petition 'won'.
The problem with all this, quite simply, is that whatever the media chooses to push will determine the success or failure of a petition. No doubt if some paedophile had just assaulted and murdered Romeo Beckham, the celebrity-driven rage and global shock would ensure that the petition calling for the restoration of the death penalty would reach a million over night. If the Falkland Islands were invaded tomorrow and the EU invoked some veto or assumed some authority to interfere in our sovereign defence of the realm, the petition calling for a referendum on our EU membership would reach five milion over night. And any petitions with massive popular appeal which are not selected by the élite Committee can only serve to exacerbate the disconnect between Parliament and the people; between the Government and the governed.
Parliament does not produce unity: it is an expression of a pre-existing unity. As laudable for 'Big Society' localism this initiative may be, mob-rule e-petitions are subject to such variables and emotional manipulations that they cannot possibly succeed in the present format. What is the point of reintroducing the death penalty today only to have a petition tomorrow demanding the reintroduction of a ban after the BBC had televised the first execution?
What does Parliament do when 100,000 have signed the petition calling for the introduction of sharia law in the UK? How does the Committee adjudicate and determine the seriousness of a proposal? And how - since we cannot (yet) determine genuine postal votes - does Parliament authenticate 100,000 signatures and addresses?
Permit His Grace to prophesy...
Should our politicians debate the death penalty, they will vote to sustain the ban. Should they vote on EU membership, they will vote to remain a member. And should they vote on withdrawing benefits from rioters (and why does the petition limit it only to London's rioters?), they will honour their ECHR obligations.
And the people will eventually notice this disconnect between their clearly-expressed concerns and the voting patterns of their representatives, pretty much as they already do.
And they will do nothing about.
Pretty much as they already don't.
This is about seeming and feeling: politicians seeming to share the primary concerns of the people, and the people feeling that they are being listened to. This is not X-Factor politics, for in the real-life X-Factor, a malignant Rage Against The Machine rebellion was able to defeat the divine right of Simon Cowell: the little man conquered the Goliath that is the modern music machine.
The divine right of experts can be a dashed awkward thing to shift.